The Return of the Scroll

This Tuesday I’ll be presenting a paper at a conference at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. In this paper I’ll be talking about "The Return of the Scroll: From Codex to Google." Here’s an abstract:

One approach to the question of theological education online can begin with Google’s mission statement: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This is not simply the ambition to amass a vast information stockpile in the spirit of the library of Alexandria any more than it is the continuation of the Enlightenment “dare to know.” Rather, insofar as “the world’s information” is presented as an organizational problem, Google’s universality is located in its ability to provide useful access. Google begins in a skeptical critique of information, and locates the solution in the search engine. What I will explore in this paper is the relation of Google’s understanding of universal access to the return of the scroll in the far right bar of our computer screens. Implicit to this account is the recognition, noted by Roger Chartier in his Forms and Meanings, that the only real parallel to today’s digital “revolution in the media and forms that transmit the written word… [is] the substitution of the codex for the volumen - of the book composed of quires for the book in the form of a roll” (p. 18). In other words, one way to understand the return of the scroll today is to look back to the rise of the codex roughly 1700 years ago. Here’s where a theological interest arises because Christians chose the codex over the scroll in a countercultural way a few hundred years earlier than the Greco-Roman culture it grew within. Although scholars have struggled to explain just why early Christianity so staunchly chose to go against the bibliographic grain in this regard, one reason rises to the fore: the universal nature of the Christian message itself. What we find is that Christianity is intimately tied to the process of binding codices, and, in this sense, the printing press only further radicalized this impulse. It’s in this light that we can gain an intriguing theological insight into information technology in the West, and the way it’s changing in today’s digital medium. Although useful universal access is at our fingertips, it arrives in an unbound way.

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